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A Tuscan Dream in the Village

Sogno Toscano celebrates the magic of Italy’s culinary excellence, taking on the pandemic with gusto in its continued romance with New York

by Hannah Reimann

Walking into the newly renovated storefront on the corner of Perry Street and Waverly place, there are samples of Prosciutto di Parma, mouth-watering bresaola, flavorful, sweet cherry tomatoes and taralli, circular shaped biscuits that are a perfect compliment to an aperitif or wine. To your right, pasta of all shapes and sizes of the highest quality sit alongside prepared sauces. In the back of the store, an espresso bar and counters where delicious Panini are created from the same cold cuts, high-quality cheeses, arugula and more cherry tomatoes are busily attended by baristas. Expect to spend more than in Gristede’s for these treasures. They are made by Tuscany’s top culinary artists, meticulously tested and chosen by the provision’s owners, Brian Persico and Pietro Brembilla.

Persico lived for a short time in Galway, Ireland due to his mother’s heritage and Brembilla was born in Milan. Lifelong friends, they met in Bolgheri where their families settled when they were both 6 years old. Bolgheri is the capital of the Super Tuscan region, famous for full-bodied Sassicaia wine. “We were both perceived as outsiders in the small town and immediately gravitated towards each other. Everyone else was born or raised there.” They rode bareback horses, motorcycles and cultivated many passions including a second-nature knowledge of great food.

“It was the best time of our lives” and they wanted to share their joy with the world.

Their Sogno Toscano (literally, “Tuscan dream” in Italian) began when they were in their early twenties.

On holiday together in 2007 in New York City, planning to stay for two months, they fell in love with the city and quickly devised a way to live here. They decided to import and sell olive oil from both families’ non-commercial groves in Bolgheri, one of the most fruitful and agriculturally rich areas of Tuscany. The business started when their fathers agreed to ship 100 cases from Italy to New York. They kept those first bottles in their one-bedroom apartment on East 85th Street and eventually succeeded in selling them to restaurants, one by one, branded with the name of each restaurant and a unique design on the labels. This didn’t happen overnight and the duo never lost sight of fun and collaboration during the process of creating and marketing their unique product. The help of their friend and graphic designer, Octavia, was key to selling the first custom-branded bottles.

They started by selling to 12 city restaurants and gradually accumulated more varieties of goods, adding balsamic vinegar, pasta, canned tomatoes, and cold cuts. More recently, Union Square Cafè, L’Artusi, Morandi, Saint Ambroeus became some of the known and celebrated New York eateries where Sogno Toscano provides its goods.

They relocated their main corporate office to Phoenix, Arizona in 2009, keeping distribution centers in New Jersey, LA and a dozen or more satellite warehouses, now covering a major territory.  Now Sogno Toscano services over 4200 restaurants, airlines and cruiselines throughout the US.

Their R&D team in Bolgheri scouts the region Tuscany, looking for small producers of over 500 items including meats, cheeses oils truffles, salt honey, truffles, coffee, jars of tuna and much more. They have an events team of over 30 persons who travel throughout the US to reach businesses and to share their products at trade shows, fairs, home and garden shows and festivals.

Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, Sogno Toscano lost 90% of orders from its clients in April 2020 and had to quickly strategize to keep their business alive. Persico and Brembilla immediately created an ecommerce site where anyone could buy their products. They kept 98% of their staff employed and rehired the 2% that were let go after three months. They decreased salaries, cut their own pay, closed their Park Avenue office and started looking for a storefront.

They envisioned a store where they could interact with the New York public in real time.  Brembilla compared this huge effort during the early months of the pandemic to moving an oceanliner with a pair of oars in our interview; with faith, they achieved what they wanted. Thankfully, they received COVID relief funding from the government. The huge crisis was overcome by the courage to shift directions to retail and by including more people on the receiving end. Brembilla said that their business is “about bringing what we know, authenticity, offering the city the best of the best for Italy.” Why not spread it around to everyone instead of keeping it an industry secret?

Perhaps you’ve seen one of the 50 Sogno Toscano vans delivering to city residences and restaurants on a larger scale, simultaneously making the brand more visible. What was once only available to chefs is now available to everyone.

They had always envisionsed a cafè like the one they recently opened on Perry Street. This beautiful place, usually filled with beautiful people, is the palpable silver lining, which we all can enjoy.

Persico said, “During the pandemic Pietro and I were reminiscing about the times of our youth back in Tuscany. We had a big passion for motorcycles, just driving around beautiful hills in little towns. There would be a small salumeria shop, like a deli here, which were always hosted by interesting characters. I vividly remember tourists from Germany, from the States and from all over the world. They would go to Tuscany to cycle and they entered the small shops just to have a lunch break, just to get a sandwich. And they would end up spending two and a half hours there because the two characters who hosted them would offer a free glass of wine, a piece of cheese, a piece of prosciutto, sharing stories and knowledge behind the products. All the cycling tourists would go back to where they were staying to rent a car and drive back to the store because they bought so many products from the salumeria. We want to provide the same kind of experience in New York. When you go to specialty stores, even if you’re a foodie, and you’re not educated about the products, you’re confronted by a huge selection. There’s no one there to explain to you why one is more expensive than another, why one is in a bag and another is in a jar. We want to fill that gap, to talk to our customers. It’s our priority to educate people here in this store. This is not in conflict of interest with our restaurant clients in the food service industry. This is a confluence of interests. We are not a restaurant. We don’t cook anything and this is intentional. We leave the knowledge of cooking to the chefs and we focus on the products and their quality.”

“This store was built with the purpose to have a confluence of interests to help our customers, too. There will be a display here where anyone can type in a city zipcode and, by doing so, they can view a full list of restaurants in their area that we supply.

That is extremely important to us. We are creating brand awareness that will ultimately also help the restaurants that we service on a daily basis.”

“The concept of the espresso bar, market and wine bar together is very familiar to us back in Tuscany, adapted to New York realities, a little more elegant, more refined and with excellent service, while being very much rooted in the Italian experience. Most of the people working here with us are Italians. It’s also a showroom for our chef clients. If one of them wants something that they taste here, we store some products downstairs and can deliver via truck or Vespa to them, another unique quality of our service to them.”

There was a need to create the store so that the public can know Sogno Toscano in person. It was designed to attract more chefs for weekly private events and to showcase the delicious products to the general public

They just received confirmation of their liquor license for the fall, so look forward to having a glass of Sassicaia on the sidewalk terrace, to delicious burrata or mozzarella in the caprese salad (my personal favorite), great cappuccino and Italian sodas. A review is WestView News will follow.

“This spot here ties it all together,” Brembilla added with a smile.

Sogno Toscano is Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 7pm and later after the wine is served in the fall, closed on Monday to accommodate the events we have for our chefs.

Crystal Kadir